For English wheat yield to increase from one-half metric ton per hectare to two metric tons took 1,000 years; the increase from two to six metric tons took only 40 years. The change took place due to improvements in breeding, agronomy, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers. The result was that by the second half of the 20th century most industrial countries were agriculturally self-sufficient.
Developing countries were less fortunate. Colonial powers invested little in the food production systems of their colonies and did nothing to slow population growth, so by independence in the 1950s–1960s, the new nations were approaching a crisis.
By the mid-1960s hunger and malnutrition were widespread. Asia was particularly dependent on food aid from developed countries. India suffered back-to-back droughts in the mid-1960s, exacerbating the problem.
The Rockefeller and Ford foundations led in the establishment of the international agricultural research system to adapt the latest science and technology to the Third World. Efforts focused on rice and wheat, two of the principal sources of food in the developing world. U.S. Agency for International Development administrator William S. Gaud coined the term “Green Revolution” in 1968.
The Green Revolution spread rapidly. By 1970 approximately 20 percent of the Third World’s wheat area and 30 percent of the rice land in developing countries were planted in high-yield varieties. By 1990 the share was 70 percent for both.
The Green Revolution led to markedly improved yields of cereal grains during the 1960s–1970s due to the development of new seeds through genetics. The beginnings came in Mexico during the 1940s when Dr. Norman E. Borlaug led a team that developed a strain of wheat that was resistant to disease and efficient in converting fertilizer and water into grain.
Shorter and sturdier stalks were necessary to allow the plant to hold the larger grain yield. Borlaug developed dwarf varieties with the requisite characteristics. Initially, Mexico was importing half the wheat it needed. By 1956 it was self-sufficient, and by 1964 it was exporting half a million tons annually.
Equal success in India and Pakistan kept millions of people from starving. As the technologies spread through the world, crop yields increased each year. But as production of rice and wheat and other genetically altered crops grew, output of other indigenous crops, including pulses, declined.
After wheat came corn, although with less success. Building on the efforts of China, Japan, and Taiwan, the International Rice Research Institute developed semidwarf rice plants. By 1992 a network of 18 research centers, primarily in developing countries, continued the effort to improve yields.
Funding came from the Rockefeller Foundation and other private foundations, national governments, and international agencies including the World Bank. At the same time the Green Revolution came under criticism because it requires fertilizer, irrigation, and other tools unavailable to impoverished farmers. Further, it may be ecologically harmful.
Most important, its emphasis on monoculture leads to a loss of genetic diversity. Academic critics, such as the economist Arartya Sen, note that increasing food production does not necessarily lead to improved food security.
Most industrialized nations consume Green Revolution hybrids. The crops are created through crossbreeding or random mutagenesis to improve crop yield and increase durability to allow for longer shipment and storage times.
Other alterations allow plumper tomatoes or straighter rows of corn. Uniformity eases mechanical harvest. Modified strains still depended heavily on the high use of fertilizers, which consume fossil fuels, instead of the traditional crop rotation, mixing of crops, and use of animal manure.
And large-scale irrigation entailed the use of large volumes of natural monsoon and other water sources. It also required poor farmers to use simple irrigation techniques. Control of pests and weeds by pesticides and herbicides also improved the crops.
The Green Revolution allowed a record grain output of 131 million tons in 1978–79. India became one of the world’s largest producers, and an exporter of food grain. No other nation matched India’s success. The Green Revolution also allowed food production to match population growth.
Mechanization has reduced the need for low-skilled human labor. Farmers and agricultural workers have seen increases in income as production costs have dropped markedly. Mechanization encouraged collectivization— or corporatism—because the machines are too expensive for small landowners. After the initial exploitation, real improvement occurred for many poor farmers.
Between 1970 and 1995, real per capita incomes in Asia almost doubled, with a decline in poverty from nearly 60 percent to less than 33 percent. As population increased 60 percent between 1975 and 1995, poverty decreased from 1.15 billion to 825 million people. India’s rural poor before the mid-1960s ranged from 50 to 65 percent; by 1993 the number was about 33 percent.
Vandana Shiva and other critics of the Green Revolution object to the emphasis on genetically modified, high-yield crops at the expense of quality ones. The dependence on a few strains increases the risk of disaster should a new crop pest arise. The revolution also makes populations dependent on external sources of food. And the potential for future improvement through breeding of different strains is weakened.
Critics also note that the reduction in crop types leads to a less varied, less healthy diet, because the crops are produced for volume, not nutritional quality. Herbicides kill wild plants that are traditionally eaten as vegetables, further restricting the variety in many diets. Pesticides also kill the fish in rice paddies. Water buffalo exposed to the pesticide-rich land develop hoof-and-mouth disease.
Some villages that were previously self-sufficient are suddenly enduring famine that seems irreversible. Supporters note that the Green Revolution has created higher gross nutrition levels and increased the intake of calories.
To promote variety, advocates encourage the planting of vegetable gardens. The newer varieties have improved nutrient content, for example, the “golden rice” with increased carotene, and there is more attention to developing altered versions of less common crops. High-yield sorghum, millet, maize, cassava, and beans are now available.
The Green Revolution changes social arrangements. Many hybrids are sterile. Others are sold with the restriction that farmers cannot save seed. Farmers have to buy seed each year, and the seed they buy is usually hybrid because traditional seeds produce much less.
The Green Revolution also brought traditional subsistence farmers into the world of large-scale industrial agriculture. Many are forced off their farms and into urban poverty because their small holdings are not competitive with the large agribusinesses.
Dependence on chemical fertilizers also leads to ecological damage such as on the Pacific island of Nauru, which was mined extensively for its phosphates. Chemical runoff from fields pollutes streams and other water supplies. DDT and other chemicals used in the early Green Revolution have given way to safer varieties, but the impact remains.
Critics claim that the Green Revolution’s methods destroy land quality because irrigation increases salinity, soil erosion increases, and the soil loses organic material and trace elements due to reliance on artificial means of stimulating growth. The soil weakens, and chemical dependency grows until the soil finally fails.
Supporters counter that new techniques will develop as resources become scarce or environmental damage becomes likely. They note that no-till farming has decreased erosion. And work continues on the development of alternative energy sources, disease- and pestresistant crops, and closed nutrient cycles.